Hiking Havasupai – My Successful Return to Hiking

Havasupai Falls Hike Arziona

Forgetting the ibuprofen was a bad idea.  It was a rookie mistake and I was paying the price for it.  I sat down heavily on a concrete and rock wall next to several other sweaty, dust covered hikers taking advantage of one of the last shady spots left in the rocky canyon.  I pulled the hat from my throbbing head and wiped the sweat from my brow, eyeing a line of horses kicking up dust on their way up the steep switchbacks toward us.  I wanted to stay ahead of the horse pack but I was loosing steam.  As I caught my breath and waited for the aching in my knees to subside I made idle chit-chat with the guy next to me.  There was probably less than a half a mile left, but it was the hard half mile…and my body was constantly reminding me that I was neither young nor in shape anymore.

The guy beside my made some comment, by this point I was barely listening, and I looked up to see the horses were right on top of us and moving fast around the bend in the switchbacks.  As the huge animals jockeyed for position they took up the entire trail squeezing out our lazy spot in the shade.  One horse cut the outside route with a gallop right toward me and I shot up and spun myself toward him and to the outside edge of the trail, just narrowly missing being trampled by the beast.

“Ha ha!  I thought you were tired!”, one of the other resting hikers was amused by my sudden agility.

It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do for you.

Most anyone who reads here knows I’ve been struggling with injuries for the better part of a year.  Even though last year was one of the most amazing travel years I’ve ever had, the whole thing was a huge, painful struggle.  Last May I found out I had a double stress fracture in my right foot that sidelined me for the better part of 3 months.  As soon I recovered somewhat from that, I injured my left knee.  When I rushed to get back to training after the knee felt better I quickly re-injured my knee even worse and had to resign myself to doctor’s visits and physical therapy.  I had worked hard over the last several years to get into shape and be able to do the kinds of adventures and travel that I enjoy and this year of pain and frustration was a major setback.

Coming back from this many injuries back to back has been a frustratingly slow process.  I’ve had to accept a lot of limitations and come to terms with losing the fitness level I had earned.  It felt like I had thrown away years worth of work and effort.  But taking it slow was going to be necessary if I was ever going to get back anywhere near where I was.

Mooney Falls Havasupai Hike

 

 

Hanging out at Havasupai Falls

I think it was October or November when we decided we were going to hike Havasupai.  My wife and I have been talking about going for years.  I have hiked into Havasupai several times since moving to Arizona but she had never been and has been asking to go nearly as long as I’ve known her.  When her sister offered to let their oldest come out to visit us, my wife thought it would be a great opportunity to show off our state by taking him into Havasupai and showing him an amazing time.  Jason is 14, athletic and is active in the Boy Scouts so taking him on a sweet multi-day backpacking trip to one of the most beautiful places in the country was a great plan.  For Christmas we sent him an old National Geographic magazine with an article about Havasupai, writing in the magazine “April 2014, prepare yourself!”.

As April drew closer, I didn’t seem to be any closer to healed and certainly not healed enough to train for the hike.  If I was going to be able to go at all it was going to be right on the heels of finishing rehab, with no prep.  Goody for me.

Beaver Falls Havasupai Hike

Hiking Havasupai is an interesting experience.  I’ve done it several times and even though it’s close to 12 miles to the campground it’s mostly downhill on the way in.  The switchbacks are the first thing and they’re over quickly (and your’re going down so it’s not as bad).  Then it’s just a long canyon hike down a dry creek bed for the most part.  The hike out is something else entirely and first timers are often taken by surprise at how challenging it can be.  That long slow, easy downhill all the way in turns into an imperceptible uphill grind that saps your energy and then dumps you at the foot of a mile or so of switchbacks fully exposed to the desert sun.  It’s usually not something you do on a whim with no training or a good base fitness level.  I had neither.

Jason did great and his boundless 14 year old energy had him running circles around us for the most part.  I hope we were able to give him an experience he’ll never forget.  I felt like we could have done better had I been more physically prepared for the hike, but all in all we did well.  We put in over 30 miles of hiking that weekend, explored and swam around countless waterfalls, he slept in a hammock for the first time and got to see at least part of the Grand Canyon.  For me, I got to revisit one of my favorite places on the planet and show it off to my wife.  But more than that, I proved to myself that I have recovered from my injuries and can get serious about getting back to the kind of shape that will allow me to keep up with the serious hikers.

I was pretty beat up most of the time we were in the canyon, walking around sore and in pain.  But it was the soreness of muscles worked past their limits, feet sore and bruised from over-activity, NOT the pain of injury.  My knees held up well despite my lack of preparation and meager fitness.  Despite the soreness we pushed through to go see more stuff, jump off waterfalls and swim in the shallow pools.  I may have spent an hour with ice on both knees after hiking out of the canyon but I could still walk, I wasn’t crippled and that, for me, was a success.

Mooney Falls Hike ladder chain

I’ve left this year’s travel calendar almost blank, not knowing what I would be physically able to do.  But now I want to fill in the time with some of the adventures I’ve missed out on.  I had to pass up so many great invitations last year and take it easy on other trips where I wanted to do so much more.  This year will be about saying yes and pushing myself.  It’s time to start looking at all those summits, canyons, rivers and creeks I longed for all year.  Time to pull out the maps and start planning.  I think I hear Utah calling my name…

Dave Creech is a successful business owner and entrepreneur based in Phoenix, Arizona. He shares his personal story and lifelong passion for travel and rugged outdoor adventure through his blog at WildernessDave.com. David’s focus has been on trip stories, gear reviews, Wilderness Medicine and a series of articles aimed at introducing Yoga to hikers and backpackers as a path to staying fit, healthy and injury free.

Comments

  1. Michael Atkinson says:

    Great story Dave. The last week of April I went to the Palisades, Cardenas area of the Grand Canyon via the Tanner trail. I went with a 72 year old, a 57 year old and I just turned 62. After 5 days we hiked back out the same trail (Tanner). The plan was to camp half way up then finish the next day. I carried 7 liters of water in addition to my backpacking load. After reaching the mid point my partners suggested we hike OUT instead of resting a night. I wished I would have know earlier, the 7 liter water load was hard on me and the worst was yet to come. About 1/4 mile from the trail head I was about played out. My partners scampered on and reached the top. After wondering where I was, the younger man came back and took half my load (I had dumped four liters of water earlier). Any who, would I do it again – YESSSS! Love your photos and stories. I hope you will have many more adventures.
    MuddyshoeMike

    • I had a similar experience hiking out of Havasupai years ago. Squirrels had eaten our food supply and we tried to hike out on empty stomachs with little water. I sat down about 1/4 mile from the top and promptly fell asleep on the side of the trail, I was spent. I woke up to stray dogs licking my face. My dad had gone to the top and retrieved a can coke, bringing it down to me. The sugar boost got my out of the canyon. It was rough, but never kept me from coming back! Thanks Mike!

  2. Congrats and kudos! It’s such a bummer to go through this process. I haven’t been out of the game consistently for that long, but I’ve had planned procedures during the past two winters that took major tolls. It’s really hard to have the patience and to actually say no to those invitations, instead of “Well, maybe, if I take it slow…” and then hugely regretting it later. And to top it off, looks like a great trip! I can’t wait to make it to AZ to check things out! Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Thanks, Sarah! Man, there’s nothing worse that having to turn down what sounds like an amazing trip…nothing. The biggest sting was missing the opportunity to go to Jordan with Columbia, but all the other trips to meet up with folks and hike cool places were hard to pass up too. I did do a couple of trips just to go, but had to pass up some of the exploring once I was there because of limitations. Still hard. Hopefully, I’ve given everything enough time to heal properly and I can now move forward with life.

      Thanks!

  3. Dave, I hear you. I injured my back in 2009 and am still trying to catch up. This time, I am determined. After a 2-month bout with the flu, following by a nagging cold, and now with a viral condition, give me 2 more weeks and I’ll be training again. I don’t just want to survive hikes, I want to live them. Thanks for the inspiration. I’d love to knock back some whiskey again sometime.

  4. It is always hell when you forget some key medication. With me it is the anti-nausea drug that I sometimes have to take when drinking more water to rehydrate myself doesn’t work. What splendid pictures! I shall add you to my blogroll!

  5. Great story, Dave! What a spectacular re-entry to the world of hiking. Havasupai is on my list — haven’t been yet, but I will. I’ve heard that April/May or Oct/Nov are the best months. Any comments or suggestions on when to go?

    • April is best unless you like it a little warmer, then shoot for May. April is the most crowded. Camping space is limited and the best spots fill up quick, so I recommend getting an early start going in. I usually am on the trail before first light. It’s a long-ish hike but it’s no problem going in. The rest is easy, plan for enough time to recover and then explore some in the canyon. Hike to the river if you have the time, it’s a cool hike and is fun to see the confluence. Getting out, start EARLY or you’ll be hiking fully exposed to the late morning sun heading up the switchbacks. Save some snacks and pack plenty of water on your way out. I’ve been caught with a shortage of both and it sucks.

  6. Great photo, great life, envy you too much..

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